Spatial ecology topics

HO116 Coral reef 3D complexity as a driver of ecosystem function and biodiversity

(start dates 14 June, 21 June or 28 June; need to be dive trained and to have completed the Caribbean reef ecology course)

The structural complexity of an ecosystem is one of the primary drivers of biodiversity, and this is especially true for coral reefs. As ecosystem architects of tropical reefs, hard corals lay down structurally complex calcium carbonate skeletons, which in turn provide the range and quantity of microhabitats needed to support the staggering levels of reef biodiversity. However, recent decades have seen a significant loss of hard coral cover, particularly the more structurally complex branching growth forms, leading to a phenomenon known as reef flattening. The Caribbean has been particularly impacted, and the carrying capacity of associated fish and invertebrates has subsequently decreased. Students on this project will film areas of reef using GoPro cameras while diving, and use the footage to construct state of the art 3D computer models. These models are proportionally accurate and allow 3D complexity to be quantified like never before. Structural complexity measurements will then be linked to observational data of target species of fish and invertebrates to explore how 3D reef structure influences biodiversity and ecological processes.

Extended Project Summary


HO117 Designing an optimal monitoring strategy for Caribbean coral reefs using novel technological solutions 

(start dates 14 June, 21 June or 28 June; need to be dive trained and to have completed the Caribbean reef ecology course)

This project has a waiting list

Global coral reef research and management remains heavily reliant on basic in-water data collection by divers and snorkellers. However, data quality can vary enormously due to factors such as level of training, in water ability and observer bias. With the emergence of affordable underwater photography and videography, a new suite of techniques has become available to marine researchers that not only increases accuracy of data, but allows new questions to be addressed that would otherwise be impossible through traditional methods. Coral reef health can now be assessed using video transects, while cutting edge stereo-video surveys allow fish communities to be accurately assessed not only for abundance and diversity, but also the much more useful metric: biomass. Even more excitingly, a new collaboration between Opwall and Oxford University has developed a method of constructing accurate 3D computer models of areas of reef filmed using GoPro cameras. These models allow quantification of structural complexity, and have the potential to replace traditional benthic transect techniques. Students on this project will spend time carrying out each of the methods described above, conducting a thorough assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, to design an optimal approach for Caribbean reef monitoring for the modern era.

Extended Project Summary


IN130 Long-term changes in the community ecology of coral reefs

(start dates 20 June, 27 June or 04 July; need to have completed reef survey techniques course and be dive trained)

This project has a waiting list

The global demise of coral reefs has been well documented in the scientific literature. The reefs of the Wakatobi have been assessed by Operation Wallacea for the past 15 years. The abundance of reef building corals has declined but other functional benthic taxa, such as soft corals, have increased. As well as an overall decrease in reef building corals, the types of corals present, both in terms of species and colony structure have also changed. Where once reefs in the region harboured a mix of different colony growth forms (including branching, table, and foliose corals), the system today is dominated by massive (boulder-like) and encrusting corals. The physical form of the reef is therefore changing which has implications for resident and transient fish communities. During 2017 the research teams would like to complete the monitoring of reefs around the Wakatobi and use previous data combined with the final year of data collection, to determine how fish communities respond to changes in biological and physical structure of reefs. The detailed data set across six sites and three reef zones will allow managers to identify the likely consequences of long term changes in habitat quality for both biodiversity and food productivity. The relationship between benthic structure and fish community is a complex one but if habitats are to be actively restored we need to know how the fish community is likely to respond. Projects here could focus on the system as a whole, or could identify particular fish taxa that have changed and examine their interaction with specific reef structures across different spatial scales. For example we would predict that larger predatory fish respond to complex reef structures over larger spatial scales than smaller residential fish but that complexity of habitat may be needed at every spatial scale to support a healthy, biodiverse and productive fish community. Projects could therefore utilise a large historical data set, further assessment of varied reef sites and could include taxa specific assessment utilising behavioural studies. Data collected will be used to define future protective and active management intervention.

 

MA131 Spatial behavioural ecology of the Malagasy giant hognose snake

(18 June – 28 July)

The Malagasy giant hognose snake (Leioheterodon madagascariensis), is Madagascar’s largest colubrid snake, attaining sizes greater than 1.5m in length. This species has been documented engaging in ritual combat and active nest defence, and a preliminary investigation suggests that the behavioural ecology of L. madagascariensis is more complex than previously thought. For this project all sightings will be recorded using a GPS receiver and all animals encountered will be captured, measured, weighed and microchipped to allow individual identification. Other novel methods may also be employed to investigate the daily habitat usage patterns of each individual. All data collected will be visualised and analysed utilising GIS software.

Extended Project Summary


MA138 Species distribution modelling in Madagascar

(18 June – 28 July)

This project has a waiting list

Distribution models allow a set of spatial records for a given species (from our databases) to be integrated with maps of environmental covariates (e.g. elevation, climate and land cover) in order to construct and validate a statistical model of the probability that a given species will be found in a particular landscape unit. These models can then be expressed as a habitat suitability map. It will be possible for students to join one of the science teams and contribute to collecting field data for lemurs, forest birds, wetland birds, or reptiles and amphibians and then use our entire dataset to make models for a set of species using either general linear modelling (GLM) or Maxent. Outputs from these studies would be very helpful as the maps produced can feed directly into our systematic conservation planning process and inform the management of the Mahamavo region. High quality maps are also excellent communication tools for explaining the significance of the site to decision makers.

Extended Project Summary


MA139 Landscape ecology in Madagascar

(18 June – 28 July)

This project has a waiting list

By conducting biodiversity surveys we build up a knowledge base concerning patterns in the environment. However, in order to make resilient conservation plans for a dynamic future characterised by land cover change, climate change, human population growth and infrastructure development, we need to be able to understand the processes which are affecting the distribution and density of species within the landscape. It would be possible to join the teams conducting field surveys of lemurs, forest birds or reptiles to contribute to data collection, then return to base camp and use our full database, linked to our spatial data, to infer population processes from patterns of biodiversity. In particular it would be very useful to test to what extent various species in a particular guild are affected by patch size, edge effects, isolation and compactness and therefore predict the likely consequences for biodiversity of habitat fragmentation in future environmental scenarios.

Extended Project Summary


MA140 Community ecology in Madagascar

(18 June – 28 July)

This project has a waiting list

Which processes (including habitat and ecological interactions) structure communities of forest birds, reptiles and lemurs in Mahamavo? In terms of habitat, there is scope for comparison of primary and secondary dry forest and exploration of the effects of gradients in moisture between relatively moist and highly xeric forests. This might permit the identification of indicator species for particular forest types. A more sophisticated approach would be to use Mantel tests to test a suite of competing hypotheses about the environmental processes which explain pairwise dissimilarity in the community of reptiles/birds/lemurs. Pairs could be studied and differences investigated as a function of distance, difference in environmental variables such as moisture, and difference in habitat configuration. Additionally it would be possible to test whether ecological interactions, especially competition, within a taxonomic group may be structuring the community. This could be achieved by co-occurrence tests or generalised dissimilarity models. For some groups, development of ecological dissimilarity (ED) based monitoring indicators for environmental condition which track communities through ecological space through time would be a very promising direction to investigate. Alternative directions to take might be to make distribution models and then maps of betadiversity or to use numerical classification to make maps of community types. Finally, for individual taxonomic groups such as birds, it is possible to test for nestedness of communities among a set of sites.

Extended Project Summary


TR167 Changes in bird communities in Tarnava Mare and habitat associations

(start date 28 June)

Point counts for 10 minutes of all birds seen or heard were completed twice at each of nearly 300 sites across the Tarnava Mare region in 2014, 2015 & 2016 and at nearly 200 of those same sites in 2013. The 300 sites are being resurveyed in 2017 and these datasets, together with those from previous years, would enable a number of different questions to be addressed. For example, what changes in the bird communities over the study period have been noted? What are the preferred habitats of the main species and how has the proportion of these habitats changed over the study period? If farming practices change how could this affect the bird communities? Are there species which could be used as indicators of habitat quality? This project is data rich and should enable some complex analyses to be performed.

Extended Project Summary


TR168 Bat species distribution and abundance in relation to land composition within the Tarnava Mare

(start date 28 June)

Since 2014 the species of bat present in 8 villages across the Tarnava Mare region have been assessed. A combination of static recorders and hand held detectors have been used along two transects in each village, allowing a good picture of bat species presence to be gained. A number of possible influencing factors such as light sources, roost availability and landscape composition could also be explored. This project will involve repeating the bat surveys and then analysing the data in conjunction with GIS-based land cover maps that are being updated each year. This could reveal whether there are particular land cover combinations which support the greatest abundance and diversity of bats. Similarly, this technique could be used in combination with other influencing factors.

Extended Project Summary


TR169 Farming changes in the Tarnava Mare region and how these are likely to impact biodiversity

(start date 28 June)

Since 2013 there have been detailed surveys of farming practice in a series of farms across the Tarnava Mare region. These data show differences in the types of livestock held in different villages across Tarnava Mare and the farm surveys being completed in 2017 could look at whether those differences have persisted. The project could estimate the livestock breeds (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry) owned by a series of farms across the Tarnava Mare region and attempt to identify why such differences may be occurring such as traditional usage, availability of land or economic benefits. Another project could look at grassland management and the influence of the EU payments for traditional management practices whilst another project could examine changes in crops and the likely impact on biodiversity.

Extended Project Summary


TR170 Distribution of abandoned land in the Tarnava Mare Reserve

(start date 28 June)

Land abandonment is one type of agricultural change in Tarnava Mare driven by membership of the EU and associated policy and socio-economic changes. This project seeks to better understand the process of abandonment and the factors behind such land use change. Fieldwork will involve mapping the location and the extent of abandoned farmland for each village. GIS-based spatial analyses can then be used to investigate distribution patterns: the degree to which abandoned land is clustered or randomly dispersed across the landscape, and whether there are characteristic field shapes and sizes. Further analysis will investigate the influence of various factors on the likelihood of abandonment, such as topography (steepness of slope and altitude), distance to the village, and soil characteristics.

Extended Project Summary


TR172 Small mammal species distribution and abundance in relation to land composition within the Tarnava Mare

(start date 28 June)

The Tarnava Mare Natura 2000 area offers a unique opportunity to study the ecology of small mammals in a traditional, yet vulnerable farming system. These systems provide a mosaic of habitats for several small mammal species. The habitats include species-rich grassland, cultivated fields and woodlands. The threat of encroaching scrub has become a major concern for the conservation of the species-rich grassland and is likely to affect small mammal distribution. Several species of rodents and some shrew species utilise the species rich grassland but data are needed on utilisation of these habitat mosaics by small mammal communities or how small mammals are responding to shrub encroachment and changes in farming practices. Capture mark recapture techniques can be used to assess population size in different habitats, breeding dynamics and habitat preference. The conservation of small mammal habitats is not only important for the small mammals themselves but is important for the range of predators that rely on them for prey. Species like the lesser spotted eagle are of major conservation concern and voles are known to be an important part of their diets. Assessing mammal distribution and densities throughout the Tarnava Mare is important to help monitor the efficacy of the Natura 2000 management schemes in conserving this fragile ecosystem.

Extended Project Summary